UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 12 Spring 20 Library
Virginia Film Festival

Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki

Every filmmaker faces obstacles. Few have faced as many as Wanuri Kahiu has. The Kenyan filmmaker’s groundbreaking 2018 film Rafiki earned raves on the festival circuit in 2018, including at the Virginia Film Festival. Thanks to the efforts of her own government, it was nearly impossible for Kahiu to share it with her fellow Kenyans due to a ban centered around its depiction of a loving same-sex relationship. The ban, and the efforts to overcome it by Kahiu and her fellow producers, brought the film worldwide attention, which she admits was bittersweet. “It created this intense struggle for me because I am a strong believer in my constitutional rights as a Kenyan,” she said, “and one of those constitutional rights is freedom of expression. I don’t think the film I made is political, because I don’t think love is political. It is just that we associate politics depending on who is falling in love.”  

Kahiu’s fight included petitioning for and being granted a lifting of the ban for seven days so that the film could be considered in what was then known as the foreign film category for the Academy Awards. During the seven days that it was released, she said, the film was sold out every day and night in screenings from 10:00am until 10:00pm. “That said a lot about the fact that we as a nation wanted to watch images of ourselves even though the government disapproved, and about making clear that we are a mature and discerning audience who can decide what we want to see and what we don’t.”  

Wanuri loved following the film’s journey through the international festival circuit and was particularly intrigued by what she heard about the Virginia Film Festival. “I’ve always been fascinated by the Virginia Film Festival because of the way it embraces filmmakers. I’ve listened to the conversations of the filmmakers who had come before and was amazed at how candid and open they were, and how well they were hosted. I really wanted to be part of a film community like that.” So, this year Kahiu accepted an invitation from the Festival and made her way to Charlottesville to present the film.  

I was amazed by the love and affection I felt from the moment I arrived.
Wanuri Kahiu

The experience did not disappoint. “I was amazed by the love and affection I felt from the moment I arrived. I felt an intense sense of kindness, and I would highly recommend for other filmmakers to come and feel this same thing. It is this wonderful platform for responsible and responsive filmmaking, and a space for conversations, and even uncomfortable conversations, to start. I feel like that is transformative. It can change hearts and minds, and that is a glorious thing.” Another part of the VAFF experience that Kahiu cherished was the opportunity to engage with UVA students during her stay, including classroom visits with award-winning filmmaker and Professor of Studio Art Kevin Everson, and Associate Professor of French Kandioura Dramé. Kahiu also was a guest of The Carter G. Woodson Institute’s African Colloquium Series in a conversation moderated by Assistant Professor of African American and African Studies Kwame Otu.  

Wanuri Kahiu on a panel at The Carter G. Woodson Institute, moderated by Kwame Otu
(Photo: John Robinson)

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“I think it is important that at any point you have an opportunity to speak about not only the art of making work, but the importance of it, you should do that,” she said. “Especially to people who are just starting to consider their own careers, whether they want to be artists or not. It’s vital to add to that conversation, and especially coming from a place where art has been seen as something of a luxury.” The message she shared with those students went beyond her film. Kahiu is the driving force behind a cultural movement called Afrobubblegum. It is, she said, about making African art that has hope and joy at its center. “Africa is not often thought of as a place of joy, necessarily, but as a place of hardship, a place of war, corruption, and terror. But that is such a limiting single story of Africa, and telling stories of joy and hope is so essential so that we can show ourselves as joyful people, and we can encourage artists to make work that reflects this. We want people to know that the cradle of humanity is a joyful place, and we can carry that with us as something we are proud of and with an awakened curiosity about and radical. Hope for the continent.”

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